He glowered at them. “Eighteen bucks.”
Prue gaped dramatically at the man in the booth. The price seemed awfully expensive for an event at a near-abandoned carnival by a trash heap. She looked helplessly at Curtis. He gave her a shrug. She flipped her knapsack over and searched the contents for cash; none was forthcoming. Then she remembered something; a nagging memory, calling to her from what felt to be another century. In her jeans pocket were the crushed dollars that her mother had given her to buy naan bread, so many days previous. She heaved a sigh of relief as she extricated them from her pocket. She began flattening them out, one by one, on the booth counter. There were ten, all told. She smiled at the ticket taker.
“It’s all we have,” she said. She flashed then on her parents; they had sent her out to a neighborhood restaurant on a simple errand. What must they be thinking now? Would they ever have imagined—would she ever have imagined—what she would, in the end, be using these few crumpled dollars for?
“We really want to see this show,” said Curtis.
The man arched an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?” He studied them both. “Well, you and about nobody else. Thank God they’re movin’ on tonight. The show stinks. I mean, besides Esben.” He grumbled a little and started pulling on the roll of blue tickets by his side. He slid two of them through the hole in the window; depositing them there, he begrudgingly began sorting out the mass of crumpled dollar bills Prue had given him.
“Enjoy the show,” he said before turning back to his book.
They found their seats in the audience of the big top tent; a gray-haired woman handed them a program. The room was nearly empty. Two teenagers were giggling in the back row of the bleachers; a middle-aged man, alone, sat off to the side, eating roasted peanuts from a grease-stained paper bag. Curtis, taking his seat, looked at the program the woman had given him; it was a cheap, photocopied pamphlet, printed on shocking yellow paper. On the cover was the picture of a bear, its jaws open to reveal an astonishing row of teeth. Above the picture was a banner, which sported the words: “WILD ANIMALS! SAVAGE BEASTS!” At the bottom, a similar banner read: “ESBEN THE GREAT!” Curtis opened the pamphlet, only to have the inner pages go fluttering to the ground at his feet. He was just reaching down to retrieve them when the lights flashed in the tent.
The man who they’d just bought tickets from shuffled in and surveyed the sparse audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a flat and unenthused voice, which seemed to sluggishly slide from one word to the next. “Prepare yourselves for the experience of a lifetime. Let the Gamblin Brothers Circus big top transport you to a place of magic and wonder.” He stopped and picked at his nose, briefly studying his finger before wiping it on his pants and continuing, “They’ve traveled the world, from Siam to Siberia, tickling the fancies of tsars and sultans alike. Women and small children should be advised: What you are about to see will confound and astonish. The show everyone’s been talking about …” He gave a halfhearted dramatic pause before announcing: “Esben the Great.”
The seats rose up in an amphitheater-like fashion from a dirt floor that was the big top’s stage. A bright red tent stood at one end; its flaps were thrown open suddenly, and out strutted a man in a felt top hat, candy-striped tights, and a black jacket with tails. He seemed to take a moment to glare at the ticket taker—his introduction had apparently lacked sufficient gusto—before smiling widely to the audience members. Curtis looked around him. There were only six of them.
Curtis heard Prue hiss, “Could that be …?”
But they both came to the same conclusion simultaneously: The man made a low bow before dramatically flourishing his hands. They were, undoubtedly, very real hands, not resembling hooks in the slightest. The man, having finished his bow, waited patiently as an old woman, a latecomer, hobbled her way to her seat.
“LADEES AND GENTLESMEN,” said the man, very loudly, in a voice tinged with an accent of indeterminate origin. “Thee danceeing monkeee.” His words slurred together as if they were made of putty; it occurred to Prue that he might be drunk.
A young boy, perhaps Curtis’s age, manned a station on the side of the stage surrounded by an array of instruments: a dented trumpet, a snare drum, and a penny whistle. At the announcement, he lifted the trumpet to his lips and gave a sorry fanfare.
The flaps of the canopy behind him were folded open again, and a darkened figure shoved two rhesus monkeys out into the lights of the big top. The two animals wore matching fezzes. They looked confused. In the time they’d taken to scurry to center stage, the ringleader had procured two hula hoops, which he was brandishing wildly.
“Thee monkeees will jump. Throo zhe hoooops!” The man walked with determina
tion to where the monkeys stood and waved the hoops in their faces. “Jump!” he yelled. “Jump!”
They stared at the man, bewildered.
The man let out a string of curses in an unrecognizable language before walking sternly to the two monkeys and quietly berating them. He then returned to his original position and held the hoops aloft. “Jump, monkeees, jump!” he shouted.
One of the monkeys wandered to a hula hoop and lazily climbed through, one leg after the other. The other stared at something on the ground; whatever it was, it didn’t survive much inspection before the animal had grabbed it with its thin fingers and popped it into its mouth. The boy on the side stage gave another splatty toot on his horn; the monkeys were ushered from the stage.
“This is depressing,” Septimus whispered into Curtis’s ear. Curtis could only nod.
“Did we get the wrong Esben?” he asked.
“Maybe Esben’s coming out later,” Prue whispered.
What followed was the most dismal display of a one-ring circus event that any of them had ever seen. The monkeys had been reluctant, but they had been more invested than the single wizened elephant, who lumbered onto the stage with all the enthusiasm of a kid going into the dentist’s. The lions were positively narcoleptic and the “dancing squirrels” so hyper that they immediately dashed from the tent flaps to the exit in a split second, presumably freeing themselves to return to their brethren on the outside. Their trainer, a fat man in a too-small suit, ran after them, smiling all the while to the audience—though not before Prue noted that his hands were, in fact, very real. The ringleader was becoming increasingly frustrated and thereby increasingly sober at every disaster; he stamped his feet angrily as each one came to pass until, conferring with an offstage handler (real hands, no hooks), he decided to move directly to the main event.
Walking to the center of the stage, he addressed the audience (now down to five; the two teenagers had run off in a fit of hysterical laughter after the disappearance of the squirrels) in an ostentatious voice: “Ladees. And zhe gentlesmen. I preesent you: Esben the Great.”
Curtis grabbed Prue’s hand in anticipation.
The red tent flaps were thrown open, and in sauntered a very large black bear. He walked on all fours, as bears do, but not without some difficulty. It wasn’t until he’d reached the center of the stage and stood, dramatically, to full height that Prue and Curtis saw why: In the place of his front paws were two golden hooks.
Curtis gasped; Prue let out a little cry. The man with the bag of peanuts turned around and shushed them.
“Esben weeel now show to yooo, his power of amazeeementt!” announced the ringleader as he rolled a ball toward the standing bear. Esben dutifully climbed onto the ball and proceeded to wheel around the stage, balanced precariously on his hind paws. The ringleader did little to direct this activity; Esben seemed to be fully in control of the performance himself. He leapt from the ball at the ringleader’s shout and the audience, Prue and Curtis and the two adults, applauded loudly. Prue was still in shock from this sudden reversal in her expectations. They’d been looking for a man; of course he was an animal. The moles were blind and, Prue reasoned, apparently unaware of the distinctions between different species of Overdwellers. They had clearly not seen the importance of parsing out what sort of Overdweller he was.
A few passing carnival attendees had heard the applause; several more people had filed into the tent to watch the display. The bear, with some help from the ringleader, had managed to balance a wide tin plate on his left hook. With his other prosthetic paw, he was spinning it as it teetered on the curve of the golden hook. The ringleader, with a flourish, presented Esben with a metal dowel, which he placed on top of the spinning plate; another plate was put on the dowel’s end and it, too, was set to spinning. The growing crowd hooted their approval.
“Pretty good,” noted Septimus quietly.